Tuesday, July 22, 2003

I wish Henry Gould wouldn't dismiss the issues Kasey and I raise as "side issues." Because once you sweep away all of these "side issues" you are left with what seems to me like a great void that Henry calls the "poetic process," but that seems to me to have been emptied of most of the things that are interesting--in poetry, in life.

Henry wishes for a concept of poetry that would be untouched by ideology. If "ideology" means anything at all, then it's not so easy to get outside it. We are all subject to "intellectual conceit and self-delusion," including the delusion that we are the ones who are not deluded. One great insight of the "oppositional" avant-garde, it seems to me--one taken up by academic literary criticism over the past few decades--is that the claim to be outside ideology, in some pure aesthetic realm, is itself an ideological position, one that has real effects on canonization, inclusion and exclusion.

The avant-garde, Henry writes, "displaces...any lineage but its own." Indeed--this is what it means to have a lineage, to recognize a tradition or set of questions within which one operates. The vision of "personal canons of aesthetic fitness and rightness" that Henry offers is no less exclusive than any other kind of lineage. We all decide for ourselves which writers are meaningful and helpful to us and which not. But to bash the avant-garde for "collectively" creating a lineage is disingenuous, since no one creates a lineage in a vacuum. We buy and read books; we go to libraries and to school; we talk with friends and fellow writers and teachers. Aesthetic decisions may be individual, but that doesn't mean that they don't also happen in a social matrix--you can't blame the avant-garde for that.

...the "avant-garde project" (Steve Evans' term) is a project of critical thought (uniting poets with thinkers and activists more generally) which dis-establishes bourgeois values & systems (the "classic" futurist ideology). The attitude of the avant-garde toward the extended traditions of poetry is really a subset of this larger project.

You know, I'm not so sure that would be a bad thing--uniting poets with thinkers and activists? But in any case, it's unfair. The idea that avant-garde writers are writers who care more about ideological battles than about writing is a red herring. It would be more accurate to say that avant-garde writers are writers who believe that writing is central to the ideological and social struggles that characterize our lives. This, to me, makes writing something more rather than less important--not elevated above the experience of everyday life but right down there in it.

The idea that "The greatest threat to the abusers of nature, freedom, and justice on the right, for example, will not come from their opposite numbers on the left, but from the center of normative humane values" is another red herring, as it imagines that "humane values" (like the "poetic process") occupy a narrow band between the extremists of either stripe. Last time I checked, I thought my values were pretty humane; I'm sure George Bush thinks his are too. There are few ideologies and political programs that I can think of that aren't grounded in the idea of a better and more humane society. The armies of the right certainly aren't going to be defeated if they aren't opposed, or if the oppositional positions of the left are suppressed in favor of a nebulous centrism.

The bigger point, though, is that it's hard for me to see how "humane values" are going to emerge from a poetry that imagines itself as beyond ideology, history, politics, psychology, and social life--such a poetry actually strikes me as entirely inhumane and impersonal, which is okay if that's what you want but I don't think Henry does.

Bottom line: I think that those things Henry seems to value in poetry are precisely those things that would be lost if a robust avant-garde ceased to exist. The (re)discovery of "the Real," of the true "narratives of human experience"--if these can be obscured by political dogma, they are also obscured by aesthetic dogma, the repetition of forms that have long ceased to correspond to the way our lives are lived.

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